David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

The Big Read: Last on the land

A driveway leads to nowhere. Photo / David Fisher
A driveway leads to nowhere. Photo / David Fisher

"This was my grandmother's house," says Dr Annette Wilkes, 75, Red Zone resident of Christchurch, spanner-in-the-works and one of the few remaining residents of Dallington.

"My mother had a house next door. I grew up here. This whole block of land used to be one farm."

Dallington is in the curve of the Avon River and the heart of the Red Zone. In the course of a life-lived-so-far, Dr Wilkes was sent as a child to fetch milk from the farms that once surrounded her home. The tide of suburbia crept over the land and Broome Farm, as it was, was submerged as houses patchworked their way across the fields.

Brick houses, wooden houses. Homes for generations of families growing up in Dallington.

Surrounded by new meadows, this abandoned shop carries the sign: "This is private property. We did not sell to CERA. CERA already did us over. Can you leave us alone." Photo / David Fisher
Surrounded by new meadows, this abandoned shop carries the sign: "This is private property. We did not sell to CERA. CERA already did us over. Can you leave us alone." Photo / David Fisher

In the past five years, the tide has turned. Suburbia receded after the killer February 2011 earthquake, the land given once more to grass. Not even the foundations of the homes remain.

Instead, long fields stretch down to the Avon.

The Red Zone was the broad brush of disentitlement painted across the map of Christchurch in the months after the tragedy. It described those who could stay in their homes and those who could not. It is what the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority calls "Crown-owned land" which was "so badly damaged by the earthquakes it is unlikely it can be rebuilt on for a prolonged period".

Dallington was caught by the swathe of red across the map. Dr Wilkes, like others, has been painted into a corner. She is one of the last remaining residents of Dallington, and this Friday will end five years of resistance and move.

In the Red Zone, very few houses remain and those not occupied are being reclaimed by nature. Photo / David Fisher
In the Red Zone, very few houses remain and those not occupied are being reclaimed by nature. Photo / David Fisher

It will be the first disconnection between her family and this land for 132 years. The family name is Nankivell. Her grandmother's grandfather John Nankivell came as a teenager to New Zealand with his parents, aboard the slow-going three-masted Bolton. The family arrived in Lyttelton in 1849, and as an adult, John Nankivell built the first Nankivell house in Dallington. "The family have lived her since 1884," she says. "Continuously."

Dr Wilkes remembers her great-grandmother's home along nearby Gayhurst Rd, the house in which her mother was born. They didn't own the land, renting a small holding on which there was a cow paddock, garden, pigsty.

Before the end of the Second World War, her parents, Alan and Beryl Jones, bought the section neighbouring the house in which Dr Wilkes currently lives. Mr Jones was a carpenter and built the house himself. The house he built has since been demolished, leaving Dr Wilkes' home alone in the Dallington meadows.

Dr Annette Wilkes, 75, has spent the past five years resisting the move from Dallington, but is finally giving up the fight. Her family connection to the suburb goes back to 1884. Photo / David Fisher
Dr Annette Wilkes, 75, has spent the past five years resisting the move from Dallington, but is finally giving up the fight. Her family connection to the suburb goes back to 1884. Photo / David Fisher

There's a memorial tree -- totara -- planted in her father's memory towards the back of the section. Like houses and people, trees enjoy a parlous existence in the Red Zone. Arborists have marked some for death. Those whose survival is guaranteed have a strip of tape tied around their trunks. The memorial tree has tape, and a plaque at its base in hope to will act as protection against any chainsaws.

Dr Wilkes has been out talking to arborists. The fate of trees appears dependent, in part, on specifications including height and shape. She complains the determination of what is a "correctly proportioned tree" is too subjective. A social anthropologist, she has submitted that decisions about which trees should be selected for heritage status should be influenced by other factors, including whether they serve a deeper community purpose.

"To me, trees are placemarkers," she says. An anthropologist, she has submitted on the preservation of trees until it is determined whether they might be "really significant to a particular community because of who or what they have represented".

She's been out talking to the arborists -- "they must hate me," she says -- and has been told trees were being removed, in part, to "remove the grid effect" of a neighbourhood stripped bare of houses. Land Information NZ confirmed this to the Herald.

This Google Street View image shows the Dallington riverside road from August 2012. In three years, almost every house would be gone. Photo / Google
This Google Street View image shows the Dallington riverside road from August 2012. In three years, almost every house would be gone. Photo / Google


This Google Street View image looks across the Avon from Avondale at Dallington as it is now. Photo / David Fisher
This Google Street View image looks across the Avon from Avondale at Dallington as it is now. Photo / David Fisher

But Dr Wilkes has her own suspicions, founded as much in her knowledge of the area as they are in her first degree in geology. She believes the clearer spaces will make it easier for redevelopment of the Red Zone -- currently under discussion. It begs the question, at least for the last resident of Dallington, as to why some parts were ever cleared.

Dr Wilkes lives where she does for more reasons than history. She bought the neighbouring property because of the land it was on. "I bought it because I knew it would be safe in an earthquake." It's on a slight rise from the surrounding land; a rise that lifts it above the homes closest to the river. It suggests a foresight and knowledge few in Christchurch had. "I'm a geology-trained person. I know about these things. I bought it because I thought it would be a safe place."

See here, she asks, pointing to the straight stretch of river on an aerial photograph. It's where the rowers practise -- an artificial straight created by dredging and snipping out a loop of the river. The silt from the dragline used to create the rowing channel was dumped onto the swampy dairy farm -- now Porritt Park -- which later turned into an oozing sea of liquefaction muck. "Surprise, surprise," says Dr Wilkes.

Once suburban Christchurch, the Red Zone is now kilometres of grassy meadow. Photo / David Fisher
Once suburban Christchurch, the Red Zone is now kilometres of grassy meadow. Photo / David Fisher

The river tailings on the Dallington side were piled into mounds on which she rode a bicycle up and down as a child. The mounds were pounded into the land, and houses built atop. No liquefaction silt there.

And none at her home, she points out. The mucky mess wasn't seen around the family homes on the raised bank looking down on land closer to the river. There was very little earthquake damage. The house was "green stickered", the clean bill of health for homes in the earthquake area.

"The floor is out of whack and there's a few cracks in the kitchen," Dr Wilkes says. "That's what they call cosmetic cracks. I can understand them "Red Zoning" over the road -- but not here.

"It's like someone in Wellington got a map and a ruler and they decided where the Red Zone is. I believe it was a panic stations thing. It was a combination of panicking and listening to the squeaky wheels who wanted out of it quick."

Some people stayed and resisted, while others settled and moved. The push to go was strong. There were financial pressures on those still paying for houses facing only a bulldozer and an uncertain compensation payment. When staying was allowed as an "option", it came bundled with the threat of withdrawn power, sewage and water services.

"Most people believed the threat. They totally believed services would be cut." Five years on, Dr Wilkes is still connected.

There were those who took the government to court over the legitimacy of the Red Zone process and the compensation they were offered. They won, with the court criticising the government and ordering it to begin negotiating again with those from the Red Zone over compensation payments for land.

The home Annette Wilkes is leaving behind as it was before the quake. Photo / David Fisher
The home Annette Wilkes is leaving behind as it was before the quake. Photo / David Fisher

Deals were done, houses demolished. "The people along here," Dr Wilkes says, "stayed for quite a long time because their houses weren't substantially damaged."

During the course of the struggle, her mother shifted from next door. She would ask afterwards: "Can't I go back to the little house that Alan built?" No, she couldn't and she died three months later.

That was last year, and Dr Wilkes endured. "I didn't want to move."

Dr Wilkes is the product of the home in which she was raised. Her father held strong socialist beliefs and was imprisoned during the war after failing to turn up to a Home Guard parade. "He was a person who held to his beliefs -- a very socially concerned person. I was brought up with those strong democratic principles and socialist beliefs.

"I abhor injustice, and not just injustice to me but to other people."

And then came the government with the Greater Christchurch Regeneration Bill, intended to replace the emergency legislation brought in after the quake. It gives great power to the minister in charge. Dr Wilkes has studied it and sees captured in the legislation such power as to sweep aside any objections to which she might cling.

She found herself staring down the barrel of a new law which would brook no resistance. "I'm one of those people who will fight to the death - but when the death comes, I accept it."

And so that is the end of that.

Friday, February 26, 2016. After 132 years, she is the last of the Nankivells in Dallington. The house will be gone, grass will be sown and a family's history will blend into the park-like surrounds.

Aftershocks in Christchurch don't always make the ground move.

- NZ Herald

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